Monday, February 20, 2012

So You Wanna Be a Writer? Grab the Wheel...

… of your nearest war-zone ambulance.

Many an important war-time novel was dreamed up by the men who freighted the dead and dying from the terrible din of the battlefield. Men whose bad eyes, small stature, age or nationality were obstacles in the way of their heart-felt war-time duty, found they could make valuable contributions to the cause with their “hands at 10 and 2.” In his classic war-time novel A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway gives us a taste of what it was like to take the wheel of a converted Fiat truck on the Isonzo Front…
“Two caribinieri held the car up. A shell had fallen and while we waited three others fell up the road. They were seventy-sevens and came with a whishing rush of air, a hard bright burst and flash and then gray smoke that blew across the road. The caribinieri waved us to go on. Passing where the shells had landed I avoided the small broken places and smelled the high explosive and the smell of blasted clay and stone and freshly shattered flint.”
…and, a little later on in the story, he has the unfortunate opportunity to describe what it was like to be a passenger:
“I felt the engine start, felt him climb into the front seat, felt the brake come off and the clutch go in, then we started. I lay still and let the pain ride.
As the ambulance climbed along the road, it was slow in the traffic, sometimes it stopped, sometimes it backed on a turn, then finally it climbed quite fast. I felt something dripping. At first it dropped slowly and regularly, then it patterned into a strem. I shouted to the driver. He stopped the car and looked in through the hole in his seat.
‘What is it?’
‘The man on the stretcher over me has a hemorrhage.’
‘We’re not far from the top. I wouldn’t be able to get the stretcher out alone.’ He started the car. The stream kept on. In the dark I could not see where it came from the canvas overhead. I tried to move sideways so that it did not fall on me. Where it had run down under my shirt it was warm and sticky. I was cold and my leg hurt so that it made me sick. After a while the stream from the stretcher above lessened and started to drip again and I hear and felt the canvas above me as the man on the stretcher settled more comfortably.
‘How is he?’ the Englishman called back. ‘We’re almost up.’
‘He’s dead I think,’ I said.
The drops fell very slowly, as they fall from an icicle after the sun has gone. It was cold in the car in the night as the road climbed. At the post on the top they took the stretcher out and put another in and we went on.”
Now, you can catch the flavor of the ambulance driver’s life in books like the one just quoted or in John Dos Passos’ 1919, but the literary magic of the experience seems to have permeated even the authors’ peace-time subject matter and was by no means limited to superstars like Hemingway, Dos Passos, E.E. Cummings or Somerset Maugham. A war-time stint in the ambulance corps quickened the talents of writers far and wide:

C. Leroy Baldridge, Louis Bromfield, William Slater Brown, Samuel Chamberlain, Malcolm Cowley, Harry Crosby, E. E. Cummings, Kati Dadeshkeliani, Russell Davenport, John Dos Passos, Helen Gleason, Julien Green, Dashiell Hammett, Sidney Howard, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Hillyer, Sidney Howard, Jerome K. Jerome, John Howard Lawson, Desmond MacCarthy, Archibald MacLeish, John Masefield, F. Van Wyck Mason, Somerset Maugham, Charles Nordhoff, William Seabrook, Robert W. Service, Olaf Stapledon, Sir Hugh Walpole, Edward Weeks and Amos Niven Wilder

Just look at that list. I’m not ready to say that the path of the war-time ambulance driver is a surefire path to literary greatness- but it definitely doesn’t hurt. And the resulting eminence doesn’t necessarily have to come in the world of letters. The French composer Maurice Ravel and American artist Waldo Pierce both spent formative years in the cab of a war-zone ambulance. Ray Kroc and Walt Disney were two others who drove ambulances in the Great War. Can you imagine a world without Kroc’s golden arches or Disney’s mouse ears? At some point the evidence crosses the threshold from anecdotal and coincidental to downright empirical. There’s something to all of this.

But maybe being a war-zone ambulance jockey just isn’t your thing. No problem. There’s still some literary magic to be found far behind the front lines. Gertrude Stein was a driver for French hospitals. National Book Award winner AJ Cronin was a Royal Navy surgeon. Famous critic Edmund Wilson was a stretcher-bearer. And both Walt Whitman and E.M Forster made a practice of sitting with the wounded during the Civil War, and World War I, respectively.

So, you wanna be a writer? Be a war-time ambulance driver. Grab your driver’s license and get your passport handy. Literary greatness awaits you.

 -photo by Barry Armer

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